The Writing Life: Manil Suri

From The Washington Post:

Manil It was 1984. I'd been working as a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County for less than a year but already knew I needed something more to round out my life. I'd met mathematicians who ate, slept and breathed theorems and was certain I would never be one of them. So one day I wrote a short story. The title was “Unfulfilled Expectations.” Going through it, you couldn't help wonder whose expectations remained unfulfilled — except , of course, the reader's. It was a story only a mathematician would write.

You'd have to pry it out of my cold dead fingers now to read it, but back then the experience was heady, energizing. I agonized about whether to send it to the New Yorker or the Atlantic. (Thankfully, I never submitted it.) The next year, I wrote a second story, and then, a year or two later, another. I made all my characters as abstract as possible. My reasoning was that just as “x” and “y” are symbols that can be assigned any value, characters, too, should be empty outlines, left for a reader to fill in. It's an indispensable idea in algebra but a terrible one in fiction, as it took me some years to learn.

Around that time, a famous mathematician who also happens to be a renowned bridge player gave a lecture at our department. Afterward, a senior faculty member took me aside to complain about the “terrible” talk. Surprised, I asked him how he knew, since the lecture hadn't been in his field. “He wastes too much time playing bridge, so he can't possibly be good,” came the reply. I thought my colleague was joking until I saw the conviction on his face. That's when I decided to keep my own hobby a secret — after all, I was a professional academic. I wanted tenure.

More here.

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